A group of teenagers gathered at the Washington Fire Department training center Sunday morning, May 26. While many of their friends were out celebrating the end of the school year and start of summer, these teens were strapping on harnesses and climbing out a second-story window to experience what it’s like to rappel down a building — and they couldn’t have been happier.
All were smiling and laughing as they waited for their turn at being lowered with ropes by a team of Washington volunteer firefighters to simulate what it would be like if they responded to a call that required a rescue at the bottom of a cliff, for example.
Not all of these kids are interested in becoming firefighters, at least not yet, but they all share a curiosity about the field and a desire to learn as much as they can. As members of the Fire and EMS Exploring Post at the Washington Volunteer Fire Department, they are “discovering their future,” getting a taste of the field to see if it’s something they might want to do for a career.
“This is our workforce development program,” said Ken Etter, senior district executive for the Boy Scouts of America Osage District, which has offered Exploring since 1949. “It’s a way to show our youth everything that goes into these careers, that it’s not just what they see on TV . . . but the real down-to-earth practical things that these individuals do on a daily basis.”
Along with rappelling, the Washington Fire and EMS Explorers have had hands-on training in putting out natural cover fires and scuba diving for rescue operations. They’ve taken tours of a firehouse and 911 dispatch center in St. Louis County. They’re also able to help with cleanup on the scene of a fire call.
Some of the Washington Fire & EMS Explorers already know they don’t want to go into the field, and that’s OK too, said Dave Holdmeyer, committee chairman for the post with the Washington Volunteer Fire Company. There are other goals and benefits of Exploring.
“They learn a lot of basic life lessons,” said Holdmeyer.
That includes everything from how to show up on time to taking responsibility, managing a project and celebrating accomplishments.
But in some cases, the Explorers realize they don’t want to be a firefighter or first responder, but they love the industry and want to pursue other aspects of it, maybe on the commercial or business side of it, said Heath Schaefer, captain of Section 2 for the Washington Volunteer Fire Company who serves as the adviser for the Explorer post.
“It’s neat to show them all of the opportunites that are out there,” said Schaefer. “It’s not just fire and EMS. There’s plenty of opportunity in the fire service, and they are all good fields.”
Who Can Join?
There are a dozen career fields available in Exploring, although not all of them are offered in every community. Here in Franklin County, along with the Fire and EMS post, there are law enforcement, health care and aviation Exploring posts, with plans to establish a law and government post, said Etter.
The Fire and EMS post at the Washington Fire Department goes back to at least the early ’80s, maybe earlier. Several of the department’s firefighters — including Fire Chief Tim Frankenberg — began as Explorers, and the department has long considered the program an excellent way to recruit new firefighters, said Holdmeyer.
The Fire and EMS Explorer post is open to boys and girls who are 13 years old and out of the eighth grade up to age 20. The group’s membership area is not limited to Washington either. Teens can be from anywhere across Franklin County.
There are currently a dozen Fire and EMS Explorers in the Washington post. That includes two girls.
The group meets twice a month — the first Wednesday in the evening, when they train in coordination with members of the Washington Volunteer Fire Company, and the third Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Training is often hands-on experiences, like the rappelling held on Sunday, but that is determined by the Explorers, who elect a captain and other officers to lead them. They are expected to come up with the ideas for each meeting/training and then plan and make arrangements for it.
“This is not a program we run, it’s a program we mentor,” said Holdmeyer. “If there is something they want to happen, they have to make it happen. We can explain steps along the way — who to call, what to do — but we don’t do it for them.
“These are lessons in leadership. It’s about letting them experience responsibility and accomplishment. They have to take the responsibility to do the job and then they get to feel what it feels like when something works out.”
One of our past Explorer captains who is now a trainee with the Washington Volunteer Fire Company took on the task of getting helmets the Explorers used replaced because they were old and getting worn out. That required him to do research on helmets, get bids on prices and make presentations to fire company officers and committee members.
“It took a couple of trips, but they got the helmets,” said Holdmeyer.
Now there are similar opportunities with new boots and pagers that are assigned to each Explorer so he or she can listen for fire calls as they come in and hear how the firefighters are dispatched.
What They Do
One of the most popular trainings the Fire and EMS Explorers have been able to do is natural cover firefighting. When weather conditions are right, the group has gone to property in Swiss owned by retired Fire Chief Bill Halmich to light natural cover fires in the woods and practice putting them out.
“That has always been fun,” said Holdmeyer, noting the Explorers have been able to do it two or three times over the years. “It’s only when the weather cooperates — it can’t be too dry, too windy or too wet — but they make a day of it.”
When the old Fifth Street School was being torn down and the Washington firefighters were allowed to use the building to practice training on things like ventilation, searches and hose advancements, the Explorers were able to work alongside them.
At a recent fire company training, the Explorers were paired off with experienced firefighters for hose evolutions training, or trying new hose lays on the trucks.
In the past, the Explorers have held an overnight experience, where they slept at the training center (boys on one side, girls on the other) to get a hands-on understanding of what a day is like for a career firefighter.
“They have meals together, do some training or drills, invite some chief officers in so they could talk with them and ask questions, and then at some point in the night, we have been known to light something on fire at the training ground and then ‘dispatch’ them over the PA,” said Holdmeyer, with a smile.
“The goal for the Explorers is to have the experience without the risk,” he remarked.
Schaefer recalled how one Explorer who had wanted to experience what it was like to wear an air pack into a smoke-filled building to rescue someone learned that the actual act was far more challenging than it seemed and nothing like it looks on TV or in the movies.
“It was neat to have that teachable moment where it’s not always as you picture it in your mind,” said Schaefer. “Sometimes it takes a lot more work. Sometimes it takes teamwork, or you have to rethink the problem as you’re presented with it.”
The Explorers help at various community events and activities, such as the annual Olde Fashioned Christmas, where they light and monitor the fire pits used for roasting marshmallows, and the Washington Town & Country Fair, where they are invited to patrol the grounds with firefighters to learn about what goes in to keeping people safe at a large event like that.
Along with all of the fire training they do, the Explorers also have had training in the EMS field through activities like a dissection lab with pig livers arranged by Dr. Ann Elizabeth Mohart, who serves as an adviser for the Explorer post.
Learn Through Observation
Each Explorer is assigned a pager so they can listen to the fire calls as they are being dispatched. The Explorers are not allowed to go to the call individually. They are only allowed to respond as a group with supervision.
“They are supposed to assemble as a group at the firehouse and go as a group to the scene and then let the officer in charge know they are they,” said Holdmeyer. “Then he assigns them a spot to wait until he has something suitable for them to do.”
In those emergency situations, the work that is available to them is fairly restrictive, but it is a great opportunity to learn through observation.
“Part of the benefit is just seeing the firefighters in action and how things are set up. What the atmosphere is like?” said Holdmeyer.
A few years ago during an Explorers meeting at the training grounds, the fire department was called to a fire on Stafford Street, and the Explorers were able to respond as well.
“They all had their gear, and the leaders drove . . . the fire was already out, but there was still a lot going on, so Chief Halmich, when it came time for salvage and overhaul, he brought in the Explorers — tarps, buckets and rolling hose . . . and they loved it. They were right in there,” said Holdmeyer.
Boys and girls who meet the age requirement and are interested in joining the Fire and EMS Explorers can pick up an application from the Headquarters Station at 200 E. 14th St., Washington.
After completing the application, they will need to provide a physical (a requirement of the fire department) and dues of $33 (or prorated portion of that) paid to the Boy Scouts to cover insurance.
For more information, call the Headquarters Station at 636-390-1020.